Debunking Myths About Christopher Columbus

In grade school I was taught the clever little phrase “in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue” as a mechanism to remember what year the famed explorer made the voyage that forever changed the world on both sides of the Atlantic.  While that phrase is true, just about everything I was taught afterward about the expedition, the explorer, and the period following contact was ambiguous, flawed, or flat-out wrong.  On the anniversary of this date, more than five centuries later, I am going to try to set straight many of those myths I once accepted about the “discovery” of America.

Let’s begin with the Truths:

OK, so as I mentioned that handy little mnemonic was, as most historians will agree, both cringe-worthy and factually true. 1492 ’twas a significant year in the ancient world. Many have proposed that was the year which opened the flood gates to globalization. After the Turkish-Ottoman empire blocked trade routes through Constantinople, Portugal bypassed the blockade by navigating the Cape of Good Hope and sailing onto the far East.  In Spain, Isabel de Castilla and Fernando de Arágon were married, thereby uniting their respective kingdoms religiously and politically. Fernando and Isabel would go down in history as the “Catholic Monarchs” for their intimate relations with Pope Alexander VI, whom encouraged both the crusades against the Muslims via the conquering of Granada and the expulsion of the Jewish people.

Of course it was also the year that the Spanish kings finally decided to finance the expedition of a Genovese sailor whose ideas of transoceanic voyage had been dismissed by several other royal courts in Europe. Christopher Columbus, as he is known in the English-speaking world (Cristofero Colombo in his native Genoa) was a Genovese merchant who believed he could reach Asia by crossing the Ocean.  I say ‘The Ocean’ because there was no other specific name for it, as it was, in those days, the only massive body of saline water, which was of course, bluish in color.

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Now let’s get on to the dispelling many of the incorrect assertions about Columbus:

In those times it was commonly believed that the world was flat and Columbus was the first to postulate the world was round:

Wrong! Christopher Columbus was not the originator of the theory, in fact Aristotle had postulated in the 4th century the theory of a vast Island called “Antilles” which lay between Europe and Asia. Later in the 6th century Pythagoras came to the conclusion that the earth was indeed round, which was generally accepted by most educated people and within Christian and Islamic religions. The hypothesis of a flat earth was dismissed yet again by Copernicus during Columbus’ lifetime, who created a scientific revolution that the sun was the center of the universe. More practically for Columbus’ purposes, sailors had drawn the same conclusion by noting the curvature of the horizon while approached land.  The idea of a spherical earth was accepted by pretty much everyone from the time of the 3rd century on.

Columbus discovered America:

This is so factually untrue it has to be debunked twice!!!  First of all, and this should be obvious by now, BUT it is impossible to discover a landmass that was inhabited by millions of natives. Archaeological evidence suggests that native people have inhabited the Americas for at least 12,000 years, meaning that the time from Columbus’ “discovery” until current-day only represents about 4% of total human occupation.  This has been a source of contention, and rightfully so, for indigenous people throughout the Americas. This historical fallacy has led to many recent movements throughout the Americas to replace the holiday called Columbus Day with celebrations to honor indigenous people.

Secondly, Columbus believed the landmass he found was actually Asia.  As a result Columbus named the native people that he discovered “Indians”, a term as offensive as it is factually wrong. Historians argue over the actual point of arrival, some assert it may have been Watling Island in the Bahamas, however recent debates have also purported that it was more probably Samana Cays or Caicos Islands near Santo Domingo. Columbus believed that he had landed on the island off the coast of ‘the land of the great Khan’.  While the exact date or a place of arrival of the expedition may be shrouded with doubt, one thing is clear, Columbus never in his lifetime understood the magnitude of his own “discovery”. Columbus made four voyages to the new world, none of which helped to clarify the fact that what he had found was a continent, then unknown to Europe. Columbus would die in 1506 wrongly convinced that he had sailed to the orient.

Columbus landed on the 12th of October, the day that is celebrated in many places as Columbus day:

Once again, incorrect. Columbus’ voyage was more than 30 days at sea without sight of land.  His crew of sailors had never been so long at sea without sight of land, causing an air of desperation.  On the 10th of October morale was at an all time low, several sailors conjured the idea of mutiny. Columbus attempted to quell the restless sailors by agreeing that if he hadn’t discovered land in three days time, they would return for Spain. On the night of the 12th of October a crew member sighted a light reflected on a terrestrial surface, a sign that the voyage had reached its objective, the land which he had assumed to be Asia.

The commemoration of the arrival of Columbus to the new world on the 12th of October is, according to some recent investigations, a historic falsification.  Allegedly, Columbus and his crew first set foot on land on the 13th of October, however due to the bad luck associated with the number 13 it was given the old switcheroo. Not only due to the bad juju associated with the number 13, but Columbus was also aiming to impress the monarchs in Spain. The Festival of our Lady of Pilar was celebrated on the 12th of October, along with the Festival of the Passion of Jesus. It is reported that the captain, on a whim, changed the date to the 12th in hopes it would appear more flattering to his benefactors, therefore beginning the period of European interaction in the Americas with the first of many deceptions. In light of this new revelation, it seems more appropriate that the 12th of October be celebrated as a day to honor indigenous people, as it is indeed a commemoration of the final day the natives would have to enjoy their unadulterated utopia before it was compromised by European invaders.  While the number 13 is associated Biblically as a bad omen, perhaps it makes more sense if this rationale were to be adopted by Indigenous spirituality.

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Columbus was a great sailor, governor, and historian:

While Columbus’ strong suit was his ability to navigate, he may not have been as brilliant as the credit in which he is given. First of all his calculations were all wrong, Columbus believed that after sailing 700 leagues (3,500 KM’s) he would arrive at the land of the Great Khan, only missing his mark by more than 15,000 KM’s.  All four of his expeditions took advantage of the trade winds and favorable ocean currents, however he still managed to lose a ship to on his first voyage while asleep at the helm, leading to his abandoning of 40 shipwrecked men in the New World who would never be seen or heard from again. On his fourth and final voyage he managed to find the mainland of South America, reaching Venezuela, which was largely due to his getting lost during a storm.

After arriving to Spain from the first voyage, Queen Isabel named Columbus the Viceroy of all of the lands that he would conquer, essentially gifting him a colonial monopoly.  However Columbus was viewed as an inept governor and a tyrannical leader, causing the Spanish crown to replace Columbus with Francisco Bobadilla. Once Bobadilla  arrived to the island of Hispañola, he immediately received allegations against Columbus that he routinely used torture and other forms of savagery to govern colonial subjects. This would lead to his discrediting as governor and end his monopoly on exploration.

The only historical reports that we have about this period are first-hand entries from Columbus’ journal. However it is now known that Columbus wildly exaggerated to garner the attention of the Spanish royal court to encourage the crown’s continual financial support of further expeditions.  Columbus was overly optimistic, reporting a land filled with gold and riches, despite the fact that his expedition found very little in the way of precious metals.  Columbus also falsely reported the size of Cuba, saying it was larger than the combined size of England and Scotland, when in fact it is smaller than England.  Not to mention that Columbus constantly compared the geography and vegetation of the islands he had discovered to that of China and Japan, despite the little knowledge he had about Asia.

Columbus was seen by all as great hero:

SMH! As they say the spoils go to the victors, and unfortunately this part of history certainly had its winners and its losers. Columbus, from the Spanish perspective,was viewed as an ambitious explorer and navigator who kickstarted the race to Western imperialism. However Columbus also set into place some of the most treacherous systems the world has ever seen that would go on to swallow more lives than all other genocides combined.

On Columbus’ first voyage after making contact with the Taínos, he recorded in his journal that “there are no finer people on all of the earth, their language is the most sweet and gentile in the world”.  While these were the words of the explorer, his actions appear to be in direct contradiction as he began to capture the Natives to send back to Europe as slaves with hopes of converting them to Christianity. When the Indigenous tribes resisted, conflicts between Europeans and Natives ensued. Columbus, whose brigade were the aggressors, determined that those who had resisted were cannibals, and therefore impossible to evangelize. Within 30 years of contact an estimated 2 million Taínos would be decimated, a process that would continue at even larger scale in the future.

Recent archaeological evidence has uncovered skeletal remains from an African slave member of Columbus’ second voyage, it seems that Columbus brought his own personal slave along. In 1509 Columbus’ son Diego, Governor of the early Spanish colonies, complained that Indigenous labor was deemed as ineffective, largely due to the spread of disease that the native immune systems could not combat.  Although African slaves were widely employed around the Mediterranean, the Catholic kings had originally forbidden non-Christian slaves to be sent to the New World.  However as colonies were being established and European exploration was vastly increasing, the need for manual labor to propagate commercial gains superceded religious morality. In order to exploit commercially, the legacy of slave trade in the Americas began.  The number is unknown exactly, but many estimate that between 1502 and the end of the 19th century some 10-15 million slaves would be brought to the new world, not counting the many that died during trans-oceanic passage or were murdered by slavers in Africa. Others assume this number could be much higher. It is clear that Columbus in search of fame and riches installed the most disastrous and damaging systems humanity has ever known.

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After four voyages to the Americas, Columbus returned to Spain.  At 54 years old, he suffered from a disease that may have been gout or possibly gonorrhea. By this time Queen Isabel, Columbus’ main proponent, had died and Columbus was unable to be received by the new monarchs.  Columbus had squandered many of his rewards and was petitioning that he hadn’t received a commission on goods sent from the New World, which was under his original contract as Viceroy.  The new kings thought that this was no longer obligatory as Columbus was no longer governor, causing him to effectively lose his monopoly on the new world and privilege in the old world. On the 21st of May, 1506 in the city of Valladolid, Spain Columbus died dishonored, without glory or riches and without ever learning that the true lands he had “discovered” was indeed America, a continent of its own.

When I was in school I took these so-called truths about Columbus at face value.  I tried to learn the information that was being presented to me by a person of authority, who was probably presenting information that they received from an institution of greater authority. In those day I lacked the critical thinking capacity to delve deeper into the matter and develop my own stance.  Today, however we have a wealth of information by historians and archaeologists that contradict the commonly held theory of a faultless adventurer who should be revered with glory. We have also heard the voices of Indigenous groups and descendants of slaves whose people have felt extreme pain from the glorification of a historical victor over millions of victims. Many nations and states have moved past the celebration of Columbus day and instead on the 12th of October pay tribute to indigenous peoples and cultural diversity. In light of these revelations, perhaps today is the perfect day for us to put to rest the hurtful terms such as “discovery” and “Indians” and instead adapt a new vernacular and dialogue about Columbus and his legacy.

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